LEWISTON — ZamZam Mohamed bobbed her head and moved her body, almost dancing, to the beat of her words.
Early one morning
before the sun comes up
the rooster crows
and everyone knows
get out of bed
and get to work.
She memorized the poem, a piece she wrote about getting water from the village pump in Somalia, and she'd practiced performing in front of her Lewiston Middle School classmates countless times. She's normally quiet and shy, but her voice was strong, rhythmic now. So were her words.
When she finished, describing her pride at pouring water in a pot for her mother, her body stilled. She exhaled, giggled with relief, and her classmates burst into applause.
On Tuesday, ZamZam and five of her classmates will represent Lewiston Middle School at the first Maine Writes poetry slam. More than a dozen Lewiston students overall will compete against New York students via teleconference. They will be judged on writing quality and performance.
But something makes ZamZam and her middle school team unique: They're just learning English. When they started nearly four months ago, many weren't entirely sure what poetry was.
"I thought we were going to sing," ZamZam said.
The program, coordinated by L/A Arts, placed teaching artists in Lewiston Middle, Farwell Elementary and Montello Elementary schools for 15 weeks. The artists worked with fifth-grade classes in Farwell and Montello, and with a class of seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle school. Students learned about poetry, then tried writing some of their own.
"It was transformative," said Joshua Vink, director of L/A Arts' Arts in Education program and one of the teaching artists. He'd been involved in a student poetry slam in New York and thought Lewiston's students could benefit as well.
"It's definitely something where it takes time for the kids to really feel ownership over the work and that (sense of), 'Wow, I actually can not only really play with language the way that I choose and creatively, but I can choose what I want to write about,'" he said.
For Lewiston Middle School students from Somalia, playing with language wasn't even a possibility at first. They had to learn what poetry was.
Then they had to get comfortable writing it.
"It was difficult to find rhyming words for the words you want," Ahmed Mohamed said.
Many Lewiston students focused on emotional topics. One fifth-grader penned a poem about bullying. Another wrote about homelessness.
The middle school 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds tended to write about their lives before coming to America. Zahara Abdi wrote about her father's death. Hamza Ali wrote about leaving his brothers and sisters behind in Africa.
They weren't easy experiences to express.
"We were so scared to share," said Isse Tawane, who wrote about losing his father's goats in a refugee camp.
When their poems were finished, the middle school class chose six students to participate in the poetry slam. They would have to memorize their poems and perform for the competition.
Some of those six are natural performers. Others, not so much.
"I'm about to have a heart attack," Hamza announced before practicing his poem in front of the class Friday.
The middle school and Montello students will compete against students from the Bronx on Tuesday and Farwell students will compete against Bronx students Thursday. They will use teleconferencing equipment at Lewiston Regional Technical Center so the two sides will be able to see and hear each other.
The individual poets will be judged by three adults and two students. The team with the highest scoring poets wins.
The middle-schoolers aren't sure whether they'll win or not.
"We're going to try our best," Zahara said.